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How to Choose Your Traction

There are tons of different traction aids out there, and depending on the conditions you’ll be hiking in, some will be more helpful than others.

Traction is a word that gets thrown around during the rainy and snowy season — but when a hiker recommends packing extra traction, what does that really mean? There are tons of different traction aids out there, and depending on the conditions you’ll be hiking in, some will be more helpful than others.

We’ll help break down a few of the most popular options and where they can slot into your next shoulder-season adventure.

A hiker leaps up in the snow to show off their over-the-shoe traction aid.
A hiker leaps up in the snow to show off their over-the-shoe traction aid. Photo by Archana Sapkota.

Hiking shoes: Hiking-specific boots and trail runners are generally designed with chunkier soles and deeper grooves to help hikers better grip soft surfaces like trail tread. A well-soled shoe is an important bit of traction for hiking in any season.

Trekking poles: Whether you’re hiking on snow, ice, slick rocks or muddy dirt, trekking poles are incredibly helpful for keeping your balance on trail and saving you from a painful fall. Though they don’t offer additional traction for your feet, they do offer extra points of contact with the ground and pair well with any over-the-shoe traction aid.

Cleats: For a little extra grip on variable surfaces like slush, traction cleats (Yaktrax being one of the most common brands) are a great choice. These lightweight, rubber cleats slip over the outside of your shoes and have rows of metal coiling on the bottom that provide a bit more catch than a bare shoe.

Microspikes: These are great for compact ice on flat terrain or mild hills. They attach over your shoes, similar to cleats, but have rows of pointed metal spikes on the bottom that dig firmly into the ice.

Crampons: These are ideal for icy uphill climbs and mountaineering. They look similar to microspikes, but they tend to have larger, heavier spikes in a slightly different orientation. (Because of their use in ice climbing, they often have spikes extending horizontally from the front to dig into vertical surfaces.)

Snowshoes: For soft, powdery snow on relatively flat terrain or mild hills, opt for snowshoes. Snowshoes offer a mix of traction and flotation and work by distributing your body weight across a larger surface area to prevent you from sinking down into the powder. Most modern snowshoes include a row or two of metal spikes to provide traction too.

A visual guide of which tractions aids work best in different terrain.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.